Continuing broadly along the same theme, the movie Rush has just been released in the UK, the story of the 1976 F1 Championship fought out between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. There was a time when getting ‘inside the ropes’ at F1 was open to everyone prepared to fork out a few shillings for a paddock pass. This provided the opportunity to photograph cars and drivers ‘up close and personal’, limited only by my ability to afford the necessary rolls of Tri-X Pan. This is Niki Lauda as I prefer to remember him, before the ravages of time and fire took hold – still a young lad finding his way:
Whilst in the attic retrieving some old Kodacolor negatives I came across a Motor Racing folder containing some notes from a trip to the French Grand Prix. In 1972 I hitched through France following the Grand Prix circus down to Clermont Ferrand relying almost entirely on the good will of the French nation for free rides.
By and large it was only 2CV drivers who responded to our outstretched thumbs; it wasn’t that others just drove by, it was the Gallic gestures and insults they felt obliged to shout from their car windows – my schoolboy French was ropey at best but I am certain it wasn’t Bon Voyage. They seem a nation of extremes, one half adopting an almost fascist reaction to two young kids trying to get a free ride whilst others demonstrated extreme kindness to complete strangers. When we arrived late into Clermont Ferrand on the eve of a Grand Prix our last 2CV driver persistently searched the town for a spare room and when this proved unsurprisingly fruitless, he let us bed down in a friend’s garret at the top of an ageing office building, something akin to an opium den. The description from my diary of the time is a little more colourful – six foot square, smelling of hash, swaying in the wind and done up like a voodoo temple, this was home for the night. By the time we hit the sack it could have been Buck house for all it mattered…..it was dry (as long as it didn’t rain) and warm (almost too warm) and once asleep this junkie’s pad was paradise. Then, my long-suffering girlfriend needed a toilet that wasn’t there – posterity doesn’t record what happened next.
The next day Chris Amon drove the race of his life in his Matra Simca MS120, leading the field by 10 seconds before a puncture forced him in for a tyre change. Losing almost a minute in the pits he re-joined the race in ninth and then drove like a man possessed to finish third. Once again, the fire burned brightly but with no reward, proving yet again that he was the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix. Talking to fellow Kiwi and sports writer Norman Harris some years later he described such occasions like this: “It’s very like ‘form’ in cricket or golf. But you wouldn’t be aware of form when you’re driving along a public road, it’s when you’re driving at the limits – cornering, correcting it as it’s sliding rather than just catching it at the end, this is the thing.” Clermont Ferrand felt like a turning point; it just seemed from that from then on he was fated never to win and maybe he felt the same, certainly the fire burned a lot less brightly at Brands Hatch just two weeks later.
When you look at how the cars were prepared for these events you can only wonder at the sanity of all those involved; this oily rag scene looks medieval compared to the operating theatre conditions that prevail in modern Formula 1. The MS120 is not on jacks, it is supported by a couple of spare springs:
A brief electronic conversation with my middle son Matt has prompted me to dig out the attached photograph. On Matt’s travels around Australia he met up with a Kiwi who once worked with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme in the early days of McLaren Cars. The heavily tinted picture (converted from a 35mm transparency) shows the M7A at Brands Hatch on practice day prior to the British GP in 1968 (taken on my Dad’s 35mm Werra which I still have tucked away somewhere in the loft).
It is the detail that fascinates. Everything is on the slant because the paddock at Brands is on a gradient. The red saloon parked adjacent to the M7A was the ‘support’ vehicle and came with a set of tyres on the roof and I am fairly sure pulled the GP car on a trailer; there must have been another for Hulme’s car as I have no recollection of a transporter. The red saloon is a large Ford, possibly a Zodiac, doubling up as a barrier to keep the crowds at bay, though not very effectively.
Bruce McLaren is sat on the left at the edge of the frame and I have always liked to think the standing figure with his back to the camera is Moss but he looks too bulky for this to have been true. There are various bottles of Pepsi, oil drums, cans and a toolkit, so paltry, it might have come straight from my garage; all of this many years prior to the arrival of the fastidious Ron Dennis. Again, I have always imagined that the lady sitting on the wheel to the right is Patty McLaren but this is pure supposition; certainly her hair colour was different in later years. Who are the mechanics working on the rear of the car – Colin Beanland and John Muller? Could it be Phil Kerr leaning on the car door?
There is no hint of the paddocks’ journey towards the corporate enclaves they have now become but ironically, the spectators look much smarter than a similar crowd gathering in the 21st Century. There is not a tee shirt in sight, no obvious jeans, no football shirts and no sponsor logos. Neither is there a major sponsor for the M7A although the colour scheme defies the standard New Zealand racing colours of green and silver, McLaren adopting their early trademark orange so that the Can-Am cars would show up better on US television. There is nothing digital anywhere, no mobile phones, no digital cameras, everything is pure hardware and open neck shirts, except of course the driver, pure software, who earned a relative pittance for putting his life in danger every day he donned his helmet.
Bruce died two years later at 12:22pm on 2nd June 1970, testing the new M8D Can-Am car at Silverstone; he lost control of the car at 170mph when a section of the rear bodywork lifted.
To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of a life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.
Bruce McLaren on the death of his team mate Timmy Mayer.